Poetry in motion: Charles Perkins Centre

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The grand six-storey atrium carves out a glowing white canyon in the centre of the building.

The grand six-storey atrium carves out a glowing white canyon in the centre of the building. Image: John Gollings

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The billowing balustrades are evocative of baroque churches.

The billowing balustrades are evocative of baroque churches. Image: John Gollings

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Described as the “interior organic heart,” the atrium provides a breathtaking moment when you first enter.

Described as the “interior organic heart,” the atrium provides a breathtaking moment when you first enter. Image: John Gollings

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The warm colour palette lessens in intensity on the higher levels, creating a successful balance.

The warm colour palette lessens in intensity on the higher levels, creating a successful balance. Image: John Gollings

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This informal meeting space has views to the campus greens.

This informal meeting space has views to the campus greens. Image: John Gollings

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The design team wanted to create an inspirational internal space “with a real sense of excitement.”

The design team wanted to create an inspirational internal space “with a real sense of excitement.” Image: John Gollings

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With its warm sandstone facade, the centre contrasts with the adjoining gothic pile of St John’s College.

With its warm sandstone facade, the centre contrasts with the adjoining gothic pile of St John’s College. Image: John Gollings

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The Charles Perkins Centre level 3 floor plan.

The Charles Perkins Centre level 3 floor plan.

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At The University of Sydney’s Camperdown/Darlington Campus, this education and research facility by FJMT and Building Studio is a “poetic” spatial experience.

Approaching the new Charles Perkins Centre at The University of Sydney, I thought that I had this article already formulated: institutional building, university, Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp (FJMT). What more could there be to see or say that we hadn’t come across before? And even more so given the fact that I work in one such project and am surrounded by other such examples by this esteemed Sydney practice. However, there is nothing I like more than having my preconceptions challenged and this interior by FJMT with Building Studio (architects in association) certainly achieved this. Yes, it is an institutional building and yes, it is in a university, but it goes well beyond the perfunctory housing of a bio-medical research centre and teaching facilities to provide an extremely elegant and, dare I say it, “poetic” spatial experience unlike any of FJMT’s previous work, or for that matter many university interiors.

Described as the “interior organic heart,” the atrium provides a breathtaking moment when you first enter. Image:  John Gollings

The long ship-like building is located on the periphery of the university’s Camperdown/Darlington Campus and is flanked by green ovals on three sides. The warmth of its sandstone facade acts as a foil to the adjoining Gothic pile of St John’s College, softening the determined geometry of the exterior architecture. For a building that houses such a complex and varied program – a clinic, numerous forms of research laboratories and offices as well as undergraduate teaching spaces – wayfinding and circulation through the sixteen-thousand-square-metre project were of paramount importance. Spatial legibility is achieved through the grand six-storey atrium that carves out a glowing white canyon in the centre of the building. Not only does the atrium visually and physically link the disparate interior spaces, it also provides that classic breathtaking moment when you first look up.

Richard Francis-Jones, the design director at FJMT, describes the atrium as the “interior organic heart” of the project. This is a sophisticated analogy, one drawn between the atria of the beating heart and that of the building, especially when considering that cardiovascular disease is one of the main focuses of the research centre. While we have seen DNA helixes embodied in the designs of other research centres, there is nothing obvious or clumsy in the “biomorphic symbolism” at the Charles Perkins Centre. The complex geometry of the cantilevering balconies wave in and out, accentuated by the arabesque gymnastics of the dancing staircase. The bravura of the staircase and the folding and billowing of the plaster-white balustrades are reminiscent of the dualism of drama and serenity typically found in baroque churches. The primacy of the spatial experience is afforded over any abstract symbolic concerns. Francis-Jones says of the experience, “We wanted the users to arrive with a real sense of excitement … to create an internal space that was inspirational.”

The warm colour palette lessens in intensity on the higher levels, creating a successful balance. Image:  John Gollings

The atrium and the circulation that ribbons around it are at the centre of a straightforward quadripartite division of the long floor plate – a formula repeated on all levels. The short ends of each floor are marked with solid-colour walls behind which are office spaces for the researchers. One of the long sides accommodates informal meeting spaces and hubs, and on the parallel side across the atrium are the research labs. Graded visibility was a key concern for the client and this has been moderated by the use of the atrium balustrades together with a glazed treatment on lab walls. Graphics inspired by cellular patterns and Indigenous Australian motifs were used to break up the glass walls.

The research centre was named in tribute to The University of Sydney’s first Indigenous Australian graduate, Charles Perkins. This acknowledgment is picked up in the intense earth colours that are used within the interior. Lina Francis-Jones, who headed the interior works on the project, says that the colour palette lessens in intensity on the higher levels, creating a very successful balance. The colours “pop” against the white without being garish, providing the warmth in a scheme that otherwise may have run the risk of being too cool in hue.

The project was completed from conception to construction within a two-year timeframe. Part of this impressive feat was the prototyping of many of the joinery modules and custom furnishings. Project architect Matthew Todd highlights that these were not just mock-ups but “full-scale finished prototypes.” This method allowed the client and designers to maintain a close working relationship, ensuring that the demanding timeframe did not result in unexpected surprises or compromises in the design quality.

Many institutional design projects typically start off with lofty ideals but often fail to deliver in terms of the actual day-to-day experience. FJMT and Building Studio have shown an ability to evolve their approach for research and educational facilities. In its beauty and boldness, this sophisticated interior meets the designers’ and clients’ aspirations of representing the noble cause of research in a physical and spatial form.


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